By Daisy Barman
On 28 September, 2018, a section of people in Assam was angered by Baba Ramdev-led gigantic Ayurveda company, Patanjali Ayurved Limited. This happened to be the second time when Patanjali and its employees/gurus have spoken about the Assamese and their culture in a derogatory manner. This time a yoga instructor named Satinath Barale of Patanjali, who hails from Purulia, West Bengal, while addressing a mass in Duni Village, Darrang District, criticized the socio-cultural-religious pride of Assam, Saint Sankardev. Sankardev was a 15th century Vaishnava Saint of Assam, who propagated Neo-Vaishnavism or Eksarana naam dharma in Assam. However, his role spread beyond the religious sphere. Sankardev created a socio-cultural revolution and is revered as the concierge of a unified identity known as “Assamese”. The Yoga guru had called out on Sankardev for not being a ‘real’ saint and referred to his book of prayers, Kirtan Ghosha, as a bogus compilation. The religious institution of Assamese Vaishnavism “Naamghar” (Naam – Prayer; Ghar – Hall) was also ridiculed by the Patanjali guru. Such insensitive remarks have aroused anger and discontent among the believers/admirers of Sankardev in Assam. Since an “outsider” with no qualification whatsoever went ahead to assess the foundation of Assamese identity, such discontentment is inevitable. A section of the people advocated boycotting Patanjali in Assam and made Baba Ramdev apologize on behalf of Satinath Barale. This is fair and justified.
We need to remember, however, the ignorance and hypocrisy of the Assamese who should have shown outrage and protested centuries ago. Sankardev’s egalitarian principles have been under attack since his demise in 1568 AD, not by the supposed “outsiders”, but by his own people. Right-wing radicalism and Brahminical supremacy are not contemporary phenomena to Assamese society. Sankardev’s own disciples split into four sub-sects in the name of caste and creed. In the Brahminised sub-sect of Neo-Vaishnavism, violation of Sankardev’s principles of equality and brotherhood is a daily occurrence. This Brahminised sub-sect and its monasteries, called ‘Satra’, situated in the Majuli Island, ironically are hubs of national and international tourism which showcase the so-called Vaishnava culture of Assam. As part of my research, I found no trace of Sankardev in these powerful Brahminised satras of Majuli. The elaborate vedic and trantic rites and rituals that Sankardev opposed are inevitable parts of these royal Satras. Brahminism is so deeply rooted in the beliefs and practices of these religious spaces that lower castes and tribes can never even attempt to be part of such a universe. The Assamese who felt offended with Patanjali guru’s disregard and insult to the Kirtan Ghosha should also be aware of the fact that the royal satras have intentionally gotten rid of Kirtan Ghosha and all other prayer books, written by Sankardev centuries back. Few respondents have in fact made it clear that they don’t consider Sankardev as their saint because he was not a Brahmin. Rather, they pay their reverence to Haridev and Damodardev, the Brahmin disciples of Sankardev, as their gurus.
Let us not be blind to the reality that casteism has been deeply woven in the structures and processes of Assamese society since ages. Violation, disrespect, and mockery of saint Sankardev within Assam by its own people have also been a historical fact. Hence, we must ask: Why didn’t the Assamese show their outrageous offence for centuries? Why is it that we always need an “outsider” to instigate our collective sentiments? Communalism has been spreading like wildfire in the consciousness of Assam through various Hidutvawadi right wing groups and their activities. Where are these aware Assamese when such toxicity needs to be addressed and resisted from within? The Assamese need to ponder on what they need right now. The forwarded WhatsApp messages, enraged Facebook posts and heated newshour debates condemning the insults and attacks would not suffice to protect a culture which has been under continuous jeopardy for quite some time. It’s time for the Assamese to take off their hats of hypocrisy and put on the one of reflexivity. We need to introspect what has gone wrong with us historically. We need to act upon it to protect our pride and spread Saint Sankardev’s authentic principles of equality, social justice, and brotherhood over caste, class, tribe, and creed. This is what Sankardev envisaged as the characteristic of an “Assamese”.
Daisy Barman is a PhD Research Scholar at Center for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She writes extensively on religion, caste, politics, and Gender. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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